By Lisa Keen
Keen News Service
In his State of the Union address Jan. 28, President Obama spoke of a nation working on issues such as marriage equality and earning the respect of other nations “because we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation.”
But while LGBT leaders expressed appreciation for those references, most voiced considerable disappointment over what he did not say.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said the president was “right to urge Congress to fix our broken immigration system this year, create more jobs, equal pay for women, and the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.” And she praised his announcement to sign an executive order to increase the minimum wage federal contractors must offer their employees. But, she added, “The irony is that some LGBT federal contract workers will get a pay raise but they could still be fired for who they are and who they love.”
“The longer the President waits, the more damage LGBT people will face,” said Carey. “Discrimination is a painful reality that is too often the lived experience of LGBT people. The President has to act when Congress won’t.”
Tico Almeida, founder and leader of the Freedom to Work group, also expressed frustration.
“President Obama should have challenged the House Republicans to allow a vote” on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), said Almeida. “it’s disappointing that he has still not included LGBT workplace protections among the issues he will handle through executive order as part of his ‘year of action,'” said Almeida. “Both ENDA and the LGBT executive order would have fit perfectly into the themes of this address.”
Lorri Jean, executive director of the nation’s largest LGBT community center and health facility, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, praised Obama for saying “many important things about equality, or the lack thereof.” But she, too, noted he said “nothing about the fact that no federal law protects LGBT people from employment discrimination, let alone equally harmful forms of discrimination.”
The White House did issue to reporters a long supplemental statement in conjunction with the State of the Union address, and that statement did note that, “Today, federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and disability.”
“It’s time to add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list, so that no American worker can lose his or her job simply because of who they are or who they love,” said the statement. “The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would provide strong federal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers. Last year, a bipartisan majority of the Senate passed ENDA, and the President renews his call for the House to do the same.”
But Jean said, “I’d be happier with [the supplemental statement] if it came last week or even next week” rather than in conjunction with the State of the Union address.
“It’s almost as if he didn’t dare to say it when the whole country was watching, but they put it out to quell any criticism from our community,” said Jean. “It just seems odd.”
Asked to respond, the White House said, “The State of the Union isn’t a comprehensive list of all of the President’s positions or priorities. The President has long supported ENDA, and its inclusion in our fact sheet reflects the President’s belief that Congress needs to act. It’s time to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of categories protected by federal law against employment discrimination. No American worker should lose his or her job simply because of who they are or who they love. Last year, a bipartisan majority of the Senate passed ENDA, and the President renews his call for the House to do the same.”
Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, was unimpressed with the president’s speech, calling it “more of the same.” He, too, dinged the president’s speech for what it lacked.
“While the President’s calls for a more equal nation are welcome,” said Angelo, “there is a profound irony in the absence of any mention of [ENDA].”
LGBT activists have been, since the beginning of President Obama’s first term, pressuring the White House to issue an executive order barring sexual orientation discrimination by federal contractors. Others have urged him to speak out more forcefully for ENDA.
Coincidentally, the Movement Advancement Project, in releasing its biennial assessment of the LGBT civil rights movement Tuesday, noted that the “top 50 federal government contractors (81 percent) include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination policies.”
Even the Human Rights Campaign, one of the LGBT community’s strongest supporters of President Obama, could not hide its disappointment.
“The President’s message tonight failed to address the needs of LGBT workers looking for a fair shake in this economy,” said HRC President Chad Griffin in a statement issued after the address. “Not only was there no call for the House to pass a federal law to protect LGBT workers nationwide, President Obama also sidestepped his commitment to take action where Congress has left off, leaving out an order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors. Unfortunately, President Obama missed a real opportunity to use the State of the Union to improve the lives of LGBT people by taking immediate executive action to address anti-LGBT discrimination for the millions of Americans employed by federal contractors.”
As in past years, President Obama included an openly gay person among the special guests joining the First Lady in the House gallery during the State of the Union address. This year it was Jason Collins, the National Basketball Association player who, last year, became the first male player in a major American team sport to come out as gay.